Supporter's Column: John Puttick

As more town buildings get reused, how do we restore both the physical fabric and the relationship with the community?

Does conservation have to be so conservative?


There is a certain kind of opportunity that gets us very excited at John Puttick Associates. Its typically a public tender, as we focus on civic projects. Quite likely it is in a town centre and involves a heritage building of some significance – perhaps the town hall. The building is empty or under-utilised, the client sees an opportunity to bring new uses for the benefit of the community. Sometimes that is to provide a performance venue, sometimes arts spaces and creative workshops, usually it includes a café.

This is exactly the kind of work we want to do. Since opening John Puttick Associates in 2014, we’ve worked extensively with town-centre public buildings. As the high street has hollowed-out, particularly post-Covid, repurposing civic buildings offers a rare opportunity to bring back life. Central to this is, of course, helping those buildings to become inviting and accessible to people who have not generally gone to them.

But should we be fortunate enough to win such a project, we know there will be a contradiction at the heart of it: conservation. To be clear, we love historic buildings and want to see them celebrated – our built heritage is important to the identity of our communities and a great physical asset, not to mention a link to our past and often enjoyable for the architecture itself. We have come to recognise, however, that some aspects of these buildings collide with the needs of contemporary use.

The classic example is the front entrance – often an imposing flight of steps, leading to a grand colonnade or portico. This immediately poses a physical accessibility challenge, but the issue goes beyond finding clever ways to hide a platform lift. The design of many Georgian and Victorian buildings was intended to impress, to emphasise the importance of their civic role to the visitor. Having spent time talking to varied communities we have often heard the same response: that many people think these buildings are not for them, instinctively feeling that they will not be welcome or comfortable inside.

And so, an uncomfortable meeting with the Conservation Officer lies ahead. To tackle the issue head-on – with bold adjustments to the main entrance – will inevitably conflict with the priorities of the Listing. Sometimes alternative options can be found, perhaps with a polite new addition that brings people in around the side but leaves the front empty and lacking in meaning. In the worst case the physical fabric of the building may be restored but the relationship with the community left unaddressed.

This is just one example, but it is emblematic of a system where making changes to a heritage building can only ever – at best – be considered to minimise harm. With such a framework it is very hard to make a case for a creative approach - where new interventions address contemporary needs directly rather than obliquely and, while the building may change as a result, it will be able to play an active role in the community for the future.

Ultimately buildings are more than an elegant assemblage of bricks and stone – they are places that enable people to gather and activities to happen. At a time when our towns and cities are struggling to encourage civic life, and the environmental advantages of retrofit have become well established, we could be going much further in bringing life back to our historic buildings. With all parties engaging in a creative approach to conservation we could not only minimise harm but – perhaps, just possibly – make things better.


This article was written by John Puttick, Director at John Puttick Associates